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17 taken off Air Force missile control duty

WASHINGTON -- The Air Force stripped an unprecedented 17 officers of their authority to control -- and, if necessary, launch -- nuclear missiles after a string of unpublicized failings, including a remarkably dim review of their unit's launch skills. The group's deputy commander said it is suffering "rot" within its ranks.

"We are, in fact, in a crisis right now," the commander, Lt. Col. Jay Folds, wrote in an internal email obtained by The Associated Press and confirmed by the Air Force.

Asked about this at a Senate hearing yesterday, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, the service's top official, explained the problem by stressing that launch control officers are relatively junior in rank -- lieutenants and captains -- and need to be reminded continually of the importance of "this awesome responsibility."

Donley said commanders must "ride herd" on the launch crews, and he said the revelation about Minot Air Force Base, N.D., shows that the Air Force has strengthened its inspection system. He said he is confident that the nuclear missile force is secure.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, expressed outrage, saying the AP report revealed a problem that "could not be more troubling." The tip-off to trouble was a March inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot, which earned the equivalent of a "D" when tested on its mastery of Minuteman III missile launch operations. In other areas, the officers tested much better, but the group's overall fitness was deemed so tenuous that senior officers at Minot decided, after probing further, that an immediate crackdown was called for.

The Air Force publicly called the inspection a "success." But in April it quietly removed 17 officers at Minot from the highly sensitive duty of standing 24-hour watch over the Air Force's most powerful nuclear missiles.

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